But is it art?

by Dave Maier

He knew very well the dilettantes' manner (which was worse the more intelligent they were) of going to look at the studios of contemporary artists with the sole aim of having the right to say that art has declined and that the more one looks at the new painters, the more one sees how inimitable the great old masters still are. – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

An interesting phenomenon of contemporary cultural life is that attitudes towards art, while often closely connected with one's political and ethical beliefs, are only with difficulty associated with points on the political spectrum. One finds populists, elitists, traditionalists, philistines, and even revolutionaries on both left and right. In addition, not surprisingly really, one generation's radical bomb-throwers can turn into the hidebound old fuddy-duddies of the next.

Serrano Even so, the rhetorical battle lines are fairly predictable. Progressives regard conservatives, whether elitist or populist, as stuck in the mud, while conservatives regard the left as rashly throwing away our cultural heritage in a mad dash for the latest trend, or as indulging in hyperpoliticized provocation instead of Real Art. There have been innumerable books and articles about the radical assault on traditional artistic values, and they all seem to follow the same script, even using the same handful of examples of (and yes, some do use this term, albeit possibly ignorant of its historical resonance) degenerate art: Andres Serrano (Piss Christ!), Robert Mapplethorpe (those icky pictures!), Karen Finley and her unspeakable yams, etc., etc.

Most of this criticism is mere harrumphing, the negative image of art-world puffery, neither of which it is worth our time to discuss. However, some more serious critiques raise important issues, not easily dismissed. Indeed, to the extent that such criticism questions the value of artistic radicalism, it may be congenial even to those who do not identify themselves as conservative. What should artistic progressives say about these things? Can these “conservative” points be adapted to provide a defense of non-radical progressivism? Or are they too alien, forcing us to choose between a) rejecting progressivism entirely in order to acknowledge them, and b) resisting the points themselves even when stated in their strongest form?

We probably won't get very far in answering this question today, but let's at least get started. Let me say something first about the examples I just mentioned. One frustrating aspect of typical conservative criticism of these artists during that time was the universal assumption that one could identify the artistic content of a work of art with its subject, and that one can identify its subject simply by looking at it or reading a description. I must have read a dozen attacks on Piss Christ which simply took for granted that all we needed to know about it in order to judge it degenerate and its “artist” a “jerk” (as per New York Senator Alphonse D'Amato) was that it was a photograph (or “snapshot”) of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine.

This does make sense if you assume that the purpose of the work was solely to shock (épater les bourgeois, as they like to say), and that contemporary art is typically conceptual, in the sense that its appearance does not matter at all. If the appearance doesn't matter, then any description which explains the concept will be sufficient; and then from there one can segue into one's demand to be informed why our tax dollars should pay for such things to be exhibited publicly, given that they are both a) offensive in their crude insult to religious piety and b) of no artistic value.

There are a number of complicating issues here already (and the details of this particular example provide a few more, as we shall see). The typical attack runs these things together: it is of no artistic value because it is offensive; it is offensive because it is crude; it is crude because it is (merely) conceptual; it is merely conceptual because it is intended (solely) to shock; it is intended to shock because the “artist” isn't really an artist at all, but instead a provocateur; real art is uplifting and ennobling – not unlike piety, which this jerk is attacking out of spite and/or atheistic radicalism.

Most of these claims come down to the alleged crudity of the work. It is very difficult to read the usual description of Piss Christ and not get the impression that Serrano had an idea one fine afternoon of how really to piss off religious people and maybe make some money in the scam that is the contemporary artworld – so he whipped it out, took a whiz in a jar, stuck a plastic crucifix into it (or maybe even stuck it in first), and “snapped a photo.” Total time elapsed: two minutes. Current selling price: a lot. Nice work if you can get it!

Piss_Christ_by_Serrano_Andres_(1987) However, this is quite misleading. I saw the work in question at the Whitney Museum in NYC a while back, and while I knew this already, it was still surprising to see its actual size: 60×40 inches – not a “snapshot” at all. The figure is mostly blurred by the deeply orange-red murk, which is shot through with bubbles, and seems to be illuminated from above with a bright yellow light. It is not at all surprising that other interpretations of the work have been made, stressing for example the striking mystery of the luminous image, or the appropriateness – ironically enough – of the medium, given that it is the Man of Sorrows we are talking about, crown of thorns and all (albeit not actually visible through the murk). Some of these interpretations sound a little defensive, but the point here is not to agree or disagree, but to ask how such a thing is possible in the first place.

The interesting thing to me is how quickly it was assumed that the work's actual appearance was of no importance in judging its meaning or value. In this context, I was lucky enough to see a lecture by Serrano at about the time of the controversy, during which he gave the background to his work generally (not focusing specifically on Piss Christ). I should back up and mention that a typical feature of right-wing attacks on Serrano at that time was a demand that we consider what his defenders (who were of course only supporting him because they shared his contempt for Christianity) would say about a work called Piss Torah (an actual example which I am not making up) – or nowadays I suppose it would have to be Piss Koran.

As it happens there is an entire series of Piss Deities, including some from other world religions. (I didn't think much of them actually, as the textures in those photos were blandly yellow rather than richly orange.) More to the point, although acknowledging the ineliminable associations we have with the various substances, Serrano insisted that his main interest in bodily fluids was their visual characteristics. He started off making photographs of the fluids themselves: after showing a starkly red photograph shot through with darker shades, he paused a bit and said “this one's called 'Blood'” – and indeed most of the titles were like that. As he explained with reference to the title of Piss Christ in particular, “I want people to know what they are looking at.”

Black mary The lecture was accompanied by projections of his photographs on a vast screen, which allowed us to see them in great detail, and I remember “Blood and Milk” vividly, with its swirls of red and white. Later he moved on to more transparent fluids like water and, you knew this was coming, urine. (Speaking of coming, another fluid he used here was sperm, which he photographed in motion, if you know what I mean, making those photographs a bit more blurry than usual.) Water might not seem to be as promising as urine, given its colorless transparency, but actually my favorites of all these photos are Black Mary and Black baby Jesus, both black figurines in water (which doesn't make it into the title here, as the default fluid perhaps), surrounded by whitish bubbles. Here no particular metaphorical meaning jumps out at one, but the bubbles do give both portraits an otherwordly feel, again made striking by their large size (the portraits, not the bubbles): Black baby Jesus is listed at 152 x 102 cm.

By now this point is pretty clear, and I am hardly being original in pointing it out: artistic interpretation is holistic, in that it depends not simply on the characteristics of the single work, but on many other works as well. I mention Serrano in particular only because I didn't know all that before I saw his lecture, and it's interesting to see how that can change one's conception of what the one picture was doing. So let us consider that horse to have been well beaten, and move on.

A more interesting issue is why we should accept the idea that contemporary artists are generally not concerned with the appearance of their work. Naturally conceptual art is an easy target for conservative critique. A lot of it sounds a) very silly; b) politically motivated; and c) like anyone could do it; and if you can run all of these things together you will be able to harrumph most effectively. But there's more to it than that. One form this harrumphing takes is directed at what is indeed an important and much-discussed contemporary philosophical theory of art: the institutional theory, somewhat different versions of which were propounded by George Dickie and Arthur Danto.

The institutional theory of art is a response to the anti-essentialist idea that the interpretation and evaluation of art cannot be made simply on the basis of its perceptual characteristics. That is, no definition of art can allow us (at least at this time in art history) to go through any arbitrary collection of objects and pick out all and only the artworks among them. This makes it sound like there can be no definition or theory of art at all. However, that idea can be revamped, so that now an artwork's essence does not lie in its perceptual characteristics, but in its history. A thing is an artwork – even if it looks exactly like some other thing which is not an artwork – if it has been presented as a “candidate for appreciation” by a member of the “artworld.”

There are some advantages and disadvantages to this view which I won't go into. (I for one am perfectly happy to give up the idea of an “essence” of art, and I think we can capture the importance of the history of and theoretical approach behind the creation and interpretation of art without formal definitions like this.) Our concern here is the natural thought that most people have when they hear this, which is that artists think that they can make anything into art simply by saying so. The natural result is a new treasure trove of harrumphing anecdotes about naive janitors cleaning up a mess on the museum floor which was actually a prize-winning artwork (so so much for prize-winning artwork nowadays, &c.).

Most defenses of conceptual art on this score jump, naturally enough, to the idea that, for example, such artworks challenge us to the very extent that they subvert our hedonistic desire for sensory pleasure and substitute instead a pointed critique of same, one which makes us think, challenging our assumptions in much the same way, ultimately, as artists have done throughout history. Some such art can indeed be defended in this way (if it works, that is!). But with respect to the institutional theory of art in particular, I think that most people are missing a key point, which I can state very quickly, which is good because I see that my space is running short.

Dickie's actual formulation of the theory refers to the definition of art “in the classificatory sense.” This phrase looks at first like philosophical doubletalk. Of course a definition of art is concerned with the “classificatory sense” of the term – what else could it be? What he means here, though, is something very simple, so simple, in fact, that he never actually spells it out. The institutional theory of art is a philosophical theory about the ontology of artworks, not their evaluation. That something is an “artwork” in the sense which it discusses, that is, is not to say that it is a good or successful artwork. This is because there is an ontological difference between even bad artworks and (as Danto likes to say) “mere real things.” What this means is that you can't make something an “artwork” in the culturally relevant sense – that it is worthy of museum space and government support, and so on – simply by declaring that it is, and it is gratuitous to assume that contemporary artists are doing this simply by making conceptual or otherwise non-traditional art at all.

I opened this post by suggesting that conservatives and progressives might have more to say to each other about art than at first seems likely. But all I have done so far is peel off some of the more disposable aspects of conservative criticism of art. Next time I will try to say something more substantive in this regard to support this dubious conclusion.